A compelling new paper from the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research explores the community-supported agriculture movement and its survival in the face of economic globalization. Organic food was once an economic haven for small farms who distributed their goods predominantly through local channels such as farmers' markets and food co-ops. In the contemporary marketplace, however, the vast majority of organic food production occurs on large-scale, industrial farms whose goods flow through global supply chains. In the United States, more than eighty percent of all sales in the organic category hail from brands owned by corporate conglomerates.
As Craig J. Thompson and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli (University of Wisconsin, Madison) explain: "A key premise of co-optation theory is that the capitalist marketplace transforms the symbols and practices of countercultural opposition into a constellation of trendy commodities and de-politicized fashion styles that are readily assimilated into the mainstream. Co-optation thesis is ultimately a tale of creeping commercialism that steadily erodes the socio-political force of a counterculture's symbolic protests."
However, co-optation theory did not have predict that the corporatization of organic food would create a thriving countervailing market system. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has staked out a viable market niche for small, independent farmers by aggressively reasserting the countercultural values and ideals that originally animated the organic food movement.
In their study, Thompson and Coskuner-Balli analyze the means through which CSA has ideologically reclaimed the founding discourses of the countercultural organic food movement and the market-mediated relationships that unfold within this ideological network. The key agents in this countervailing market system are food and farm activists who promote the CSA model through seminars and literature, CSA farmers, and devoted consumer members who act as evangelists.
"In the context of these countervailing market relationships, CSA's ideology is concretely enacted and experienced as a collective project oriented around three modes of praxis: 1) reconstituting rooted connections; 2) engaging in practices of decommodification; and 3) working toward an artisan food culture," the authors write.
More generally, the investigators propose that the CSA market provides a compelling ideological alternative to consumption communities created by the institutional structures of global corporate capitalism. This alternative ideological framework, focused on communal consumption experiences, enables CSA consumers to accept the unconventional demands and transaction costs imposed by this system as socially redeeming benefits.
"For the consumers in this study, CSA's ideology and constellation of unconventional marketplace practices sufficiently diverge from status quo modes of consumption that they can credibly believe it is redressing some of the ecological and socio-economic problems fostered by economic globalization," the authors explain.
"CSA also affords consumers with reaffirming experiences of emotional immediacy, confidence in outcomes, direct participatory involvement, and personal engagement that are difficult to replicate in standard forms of socially responsible consumption, whose realpolitik consequences are diffused across the vast expanse of the global economy."
Craig J. Thompson and Gokcen Coskuner-Balli. "Countervailing Market Responses to Corporate Co-optation and the Ideological Recruitment of Consumption Communities," Journal of Consumer Research: August 2007.